Thursday, July 18, 2024

Op-ed: UNC-CH’s pro-democracy school is a big plus

This is an op-ed by John P. Preyer, a Chapel Hill entrepreneur and chairman of the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

One thing North Carolinians can be grateful for this holiday season is the professional commitment to accuracy and fairness by at least some in the state’s news media, including Business North Carolina.

Paul Fulton’s Nov. 22 BNC guest column, however, includes a major misstatement amid his meandering speculation why Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz might want to leave UNC-Chapel Hill for another university: “A surprise resolution by the Board of Trustees to create a conservative School of Civic Life and Leadership, blindsiding the chancellor and the faculty.”

As has been documented thoroughly, that’s neither the school’s purpose nor how it originated. Instead, it evolved over several years as an outgrowth of the university’s ideologically diverse Program for Public Discourse and its forward-thinking Ideas in Action curriculum – led in large part by Guskiewicz himself.

Top university administrators and key faculty members – including Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens – visited similar schools elsewhere for inspiration. Last year they drafted a memo outlining the new school and its funding needs before our Board of Trustees adopted a resolution in January urging its acceleration. The school is an excellent idea, but it wasn’t ours.

This is not a minor distinction. People might disagree about the value of a public university’s promoting respectful political discourse and civic engagement in a democracy – particularly if they’re used to dominating the campus debate – but they shouldn’t misrepresent its genesis.

More important, Chancellor Guskiewicz has consistently supported the new school publicly and privately. Its launch by him and others can’t logically be a reason why he would leave UNC Chapel Hill.

“This is not something that dropped out of the sky,” Guskiewicz noted during the university’s Oct. 6 Faculty Council meeting. “I’m excited about the opportunities that I believe it presents. …This is something that we can be very, very proud of in the coming years.”

Guskiewicz explained how the concept grew out of the university’s Ideas in Action curriculum.

“We as a faculty recognized that we were not doing enough to educate our students on, number one, how to have difficult conversations – how to engage with somebody that you know disagrees with you, how to listen, how to form your own opinion and your own values and defend those,” he said. “And then also how to be really a part of the civic life of a democracy.”

Dean Jim White of the College of Arts & Sciences likewise emphasized to the Faculty Council the school’s vital role in reinforcing civil discourse and responsible citizenship.

“We’re very much in the arena of trying to not just educate our students in the major or majors in which they’re interested, but also take seriously our responsibility to produce for this state and for this country well-educated citizens who own and know how to nurture a democracy,” he said.

Consider, too, the university’s job posting for the school’s inaugural dean:

“Faculty will aim to provide the productive culture of free and civil discourse, open inquiry, and scientific literacy necessary for members of a democratic society to explore humanity’s highest purposes and potential. The curriculum will invite students to develop democratic competencies and key virtues such as intellectual humility, curiosity, and generosity as they engage perennial questions of morality, aesthetics, religion, politics, economics, health, law, and science.”

That’s far from the right-wing barrio its fevered critics claim, but rather a fundamental function of public higher education in a pluralistic society. (And, for that matter, of journalism.)

Meanwhile, nine UNC-CH faculty members are developing the school’s vision and curriculum while leading the search for its dean.

As Carolina climbs in higher-education rankings and its applications and enrollment are surging, the university’s unique national leadership on civic engagement will only add to its luster. Chancellor Guskiewicz knows this, and that’s why he supports the new pro-democracy school.

Meanwhile, encouraging signs suggest that the dyspeptic, status-quo, insider power crowd exemplified by Mr. Fulton’s elitism has gone from throwing cold water on Carolina’s pro-democracy curriculum to its new stance of “we’ve never taken issue with the idea of the school itself” – belatedly accepting the fact that true intellectual diversity and freedom of thought at the university of the people of North Carolina are bound to produce light and liberty for everyone.

Perhaps there is hope for reason over hysteria in Chapel Hill after all.

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